Solastalgia and the crossing of legal boundaries

King George V and Queen Mary were cheering on their stallion, Anmer, in the Epsom Derby on Saturday 13 June 1913 when a woman ran on to the track and was struck by the horse as it raced past. She was knocked out and died four days later.

“A most regrettable and scandalous proceeding,” the king wrote later. The queen said the victim, Emily Wilding Davison, was a “horrid woman”, an opinion shared by numerous newspaper correspondents. Yet thousands attended her funeral. 

Davison was a passionate advocate for women’s right to vote. Repeatedly arrested and jailed, she refused to eat, and prison authorities resorted to force-feeding. Traumatised by one such session, she was badly hurt in a suicide attempt while in jail.

Davison’s death lifted a veil over women’s entrenched disadvantages and triggered a massive shift in public opinion. A century later in Epsom’s town centre, her heroism was recognised with the unveiling of her life-sized likeness in bronze.

Another battle for hearts and minds against entrenched attitudes is happening now, here in Tasmania, across Australia and around the world. Female suffrage was a big cause; this one is massively bigger: the cause of ending the pollution casting a pall over the future of life on Earth.

Last week at Wimbledon, a few kilometres from Epsom, people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Just Stop Oil” briefly stopped the tennis. Echoing those past royal comments, home secretary Suella Braverman condemned the “unacceptable” protest intended to “ruin” the event.

Firmly in the Just Stop Oil camp is Scott Bell, a Tasmanian doctor who has dedicated his life to public service and social justice. A Launceston boarding school education that he describes as “harsh, rigorous, cruel, and dangerous” set him up to champion victims’ rights, just as his experience of the natural world, including voluntary fire service, made it inevitable that he would stand up for natural values. 

Now in his 70s, Bell is a member of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a group seeking stronger climate action which has made a name for itself blocking the passage of people and motor vehicles in busy places. Any pride that Bell feels about his 13 convictions to date is tempered by the harm they bring to his reputation.

Like the suffragettes, XR routinely attracts put-downs for its public protests. Politicians of both major parties represent these actions as infringing on the rights of people and companies to go about lawful business. They disparage the organisation as extreme, trivialise and treat as irrelevant its members’ strong personal beliefs, and ramp up penalties.

People protest because government and/or society don’t see what they see. No matter how peaceful they want their action to be, they will inevitably annoy some. XR has determined that the cause it represents is so serious that it must directly challenge people to think about it, which necessarily means stopping them in their tracks. 

I have written before of another Tasmanian XR activist, Baptist pastor Jeff McKinnon. Last week he wrote to his flock about a mind-boggling record. Monday’s global average temperature, computed by the University of Maine, topped 17C for the first time on the 143-year instrument record. The world was even warmer the next day and warmer again on Thursday. The global mean remained above 17C all week. 

Such events play on minds, especially scientific ones. “Civil disobedience by scientists helps press for urgent climate action” was the title of an article by six climatologists published last year in the science journal Nature Climate Change

“The scientific community is well aware of the grim trajectory on which the Earth is headed,” the paper said. “To press for more meaningful efforts, and to push back against the negligence and bad faith tactics that frustrate this, a legitimate next step for scientists is to participate in peaceful civil disobedience.”

Scientists, with people everywhere, are feeling a particular kind of grief in the face of irrefutable evidence of dangerous climate change. Australian academic Glenn Albrecht called it “solastalgia… the pain or sickness caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory.” 

Meanwhile the federal and Northern Territory governments are enabling a massive northern gas hub to go ahead, with global implications for carbon emissions. Protest action against it will likely be branded extreme. But who are the real extremists here?

Like those scientists, and Scott Bell, Jeff McKinnon and all climate action protesters, I feel grief – solastalgia – at what we are losing. Unlike them, I have not defied the law. That takes real courage.

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